If the UK government sticks to its timetable, then Article 50 will be triggered by the end of this month. But how and when? And what happens next?
What is Article 50?
The referendum last June was the UK’s signal that it wants to leave the European Union, and Article 50 is the format notification of the UK’s intention to leave – effectively it is the start of the leaving process, which will last two years.
The article itself is a short, five-point text that was enshrined into EU law as part of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. Prior to that, there was no process for leaving the EU. The text is vague, brief and is open to interpretation. Furthermore, it has never been tested before as no member has ever left the EU. Likewise there is no precedent, no patter to follow and therefore the process and procedures for leaving the EU are unclear.
How is Article 50 Triggered?
Due to the lack of precedent, the mechanics of triggering Article 50 are only now being discussed by officials in both London and in Brussels. The only requirement is that the notification is made in writing to the President of the European Council. Therefore it could be as simple as one line and sent in the form of an email, however given the enormity of the decision and the symbolism of the moment, it is likely that the UK government will make more of it. The notification letter may therefor include a reference to the UK government’s repeated desire that the EU remain a strong partner for Britain after Brexit. The letter could also be hand-delivered to the European Council building in Brussels. However by who it remains unclear, although it could be by Britain’s Ambassador to the EU, Sir Tome Barrow, or the Brexit Secretary, David Davis MP.
When Will Article 50 Be Triggered?
When to pull Article 50 is entirely up to the country that is planning to leave the EU. In the case of the UK, Prime Minister Teresa May has repeatedly indicated that she will do it by March. Time however is quickly running out, and the process have been further complicated by politics and sensitivities both in the UK and in Europe.
Domestically, politics between the House of Lords and the House of Commons has deployed the process. Only once the Brexit bill has been cleared by both houses and received royal ascent, will Prime Minister May be in a position to trigger it. However there are several dates which have been deemed as being inappropriate for a triggering.
- 15 March – All eyes will be on the Dutch election, which could be a potentially tricky day for the EU if anti-EU far-right candidate Geert Wilders does well. Triggering Article 50 on that day would also dominate the news agenda and could, potentially, influence Dutch voters. The result of the election will trickle in on 16 March, which will be another bad day to trigger Article 50.
- 25 March – This day marks the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the foundations of the present-day EU. The heads of state from all EU members, with the exception for now at least the UK, will gather in Rome for a weekend of celebrations.
IS the UK Still a Member of the EU After Article 50 Has Been Triggered?
Yes, the UK will remain a member of the EU for precisely two years from the day the article is triggered. Therefore if Article 50 is triggered on 31 March 2017, then the UK would case to be a member of the EU at the end of the day on 31 March 2019. During this two-year period, the UK will remain bound by EU laws and regulations. It will also be entitled to near-full membership rights, however it must also honour its commitments as a member and those include financial. The only areas in the two-year period where the UK is excluded from EU affairs are when the 27 remaining countries are discussing the UK withdrawal or where they are discussing internal EU business.
Once Article 50 Has Been Triggered, Is there Any Turning Back?
Article 50 does not state whether it is reversible and EU lawyers have never pronounced on the issue.
Will Negotiations Between the UK and the EU Begin As Soon As Article 50 is Triggered?
No. There is a common misconception that in the first week after the triggering of Article 50, the two negotiators – Michel Barnier for the EU and David Davis MP for the UK – will face off across a table and begin negotiating Britain’s exit. It will not work like this for a number of reasons. Firstly, the EU side will need at least two months in order to draw up guidelines. The remaining 27 states will also decide on negotiating topics and re lines, which they will then feed into the EU Council. While the EU has already presented a united front on Brexit, it will quickly become clear that many of the negotiating topics and red lines are unique to individuals states. Subsequently things will become more granular, complicated and divided as the process goes along. It will be up to the European Council’s behind-the-scenes Brexit negotiation, Belgian diplomat Didier Seewus, to co-ordinate with the member countries and try to keep negotiations on track. Secondly, while Mr Barnier is the chief negotiator on behalf of the EU Commission, the negotiations will be carried out by large teams on both sides.
What if the Withdrawal Process Takes Longer than the Designated Two Years?
The exit clock to leave the EU effectively begins the moment that Article is triggered. Precisely two years later the UK ceases to be a member of the EU. During that period, the negotiations for the exit must be concluded. However this is an extremely unrealistic timetable to conclude such complicated negotiations and in reality, because of the time taken at the beginning and the end for the process to wind up and wind down the negotiations, the actual negotiating time will probably be only 15 months at best. The two-year Article 50 period can however be extended, and the UK continue to be an EU member, however only if all 27 remaining countries agree to it unanimously.
On Thursday 9 March, European Union (EU) leaders re-elected President of European Council Donald Tusk despite a bid to oust him by his home country Poland. The re-election came after earlier in the day Poland had threatened to derail Thursday’s EU summit as it attempted to bloc Tusk’s re-election.
Sources have indicated that the leaders voted 27 to one to give him another two-and-a-half-year term.
Arriving at the summit on Thursday, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo stated that nothing should be decided without Poland’s agreement. Ms Szydlo had also written a letter to EU leaders, stating that Mr Tusk has “violated multiple times his European mandate” by getting involved in Polish political disputes and supporting the opposition to the government. The EU has angered Poland’s nationalist government by criticizing changes to the country’s top court, new restrictions on journalists and it opposition to resettling refugees by quota. Meanwhile in an interview earlier with Polish television, Foreign Minister Waszczykowski stated that his country could even veto the summit’s conclusions to scupper Mr Tusk’s re-election. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, however suggested that Mr Tusk’s re-election could not be blocked, stating “one country, or a number of countries might be against that decision, but one country cannot block a decision…There are very clear rules of engagement and rules of procedure which we will follow.”
Speaking after EU leaders re-elected Mr Tusk to a second term, Poland’s Prime Minister stated that Mr Tusk’s re-appointment would damage EU efforts to recover after the UK’s departure and that it was a “question of principles” that any candidate for the post should be backed by his home country.
The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) implacably opposes Mr Tusk, who is a former minister from a rival party. While on the ground sources have indicated that such hostility among patriots is highly unusual in EU politics, Mr Tusk was expected to get enough support to keep his post. He had the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that his re-election to a new 30-month term would be a “sign of stability. As European Council president, Mr Tusk would be a major role in the UK’s Brexit negotiations.
Prior to Thursday’s vote, Poland’s government was desperate in trying to prevent Mr Tusk from being re-elected to a second term as president of the European Council. They went as far as to propose its own candidate – a little-known Polish MEP called Jacek Saryusz-Wolski.
There has also been some suggestion that the UK may abstain from the vote in a bid to win Polish support over Brexit negotiations. However ultimately all but Poland voted for Mr Tusk, with the Press Association news agency quoting UK government sources as saying that Prime Minister Theresa May was “pleased” that he had been re-elected.
The Election Day is approaching in the Netherlands. First of a series of national elections that in the few months will help to decide the future for the European Union. The bloc’s two largest economies, France and Germany, will hold elections in two round for France (April and May) and September in Germany. Also Italy, depending on the status of its fragile governments, may join them. However, kicking it all off is the Netherlands, whose voters will go to the polls on the 15th on March. In the Netherlands, as in many other EU countries, nationalist and Euroskeptic parties are performing well in opinion polls.
In recent years, elections in many European countries have shown that popular support for mainstream political parties is waning as anti-system and Euroskeptic forces are gaining popularity. The Netherlands, one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, is following this trend.
Its parliament is composed of numerous parties, and coalitions are often needed to form governments. According to opinion polls, in the coming election, the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy of Prime Minister Mark Rutte would win from 23 to 28 of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament. This would be a significant decline from the 41 seats it won in the general election of 2012. Similarly, the Labor Party would win 10 to 12 seats, well below the 38 seats it obtained in the last election.
These votes could be lost in favor of the euroskeptic Party of Freedom, who according to January opinion polls could double its parliamentary representation, reaching between 29 and 35 seats (in 2012, it won only 15 seats). That party and its leader, Geert Wilders, want the Netherlands to leave the European Union (a so-called Nexit) and to reintroduce the guilder as its national currency. The party has a strong anti-immigration and anti-Muslim agenda, presenting itself as a protector of Dutch culture and identity.
With the financial crisis over in the Netherlands, the economy is growing and has faded as an election issue, so Wildres’ electoral campaign has been dominated for the most part by the issue of immigration. Wilders has vowed to ban Muslim immigration and shut mosques if he wins. He was also convicted in December in a hate speech trial over his promise to reduce the number of Moroccans in the country.
However, Wilders’ campaign is faltering, with immigrants who make up 30% of Dutch population. Concerning the EU issue, opinion polls suggest support for a Dutch “Nexit” in the months after the Brexit vote fell by 8% to 25%. Pollsters say people have realized that leaving the EU would be more complicated than they thought. Nevertheless, according to latest polls two weeks before elections he was still leading polls.
But even if the Party of Freedom performs strongly in the election, it would struggle to enter the government. Most mainstream Dutch political parties refuse to cooperate with Wilders and have said they will exclude the Party of Freedom from the negotiations to form a government. The Party of Freedom is the only major party advocating a Nexit; the rest of the political establishment remains committed to the Netherlands’ EU membership and its role as the heart of the process of European integration.
According to a lead mediator from the Catholic Church, Congolese President Joseph Kabila will step down after elections, which will be held before the end of 2017, under a deal that was struck by political parties on 30 December 2016. Speaking to reporters, Marcel Utembi, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in the DRC, disclosed that under the deal, President Kabila will be unable to change the constitution to extend his mandate and run for a third term in office. Hopes are now high that the landmark power-sharing deal between DRC’s political opponents will bring an end to a months-long crisis. It also aims to head of further unrest over the fate of President Joseph Kabila, whose second and final mandate ended on 20 December with no sign of him stepping down and no election in sight.
Below is a timeline of the crisis that has affected the country
- 17 January 2015 – Parliament adopts a bill that would enable President Kabila, who has been in power for fourteen years, to extend his term beyond 2016. The president’s opponents believe that he wants to prolong his mandate by making the presidential and parliamentary elections contingent on a new electoral roll, as a census that was set to begin in 2015 has yet to take place.
- Between 19 – 22 January 2015 – Clashes between police and anti-Kabila demonstrators erupt in the capital Kinshasa and several other towns across the country. The clashes degenerate into riots and looting, with police using life fire and tear gas in a bid to disperse the crowds. Dozens are killed. Speaking from Belgium, opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi calls on the Congolese people to force a “dying regime” from power.
- 25 January 2015 – Parliament votes in favor of a new election law, which still leaves doubts over the timetable for new polls.
- December 2015 – The United Nations expresses concern over a government crackdown on opponents, pointing to “arbitrary arrests and detentions, in particular political opponents, civil society activists or demonstrators.”
- 4 May 2016 – Opposition leader Moise Katumbi declares that he will stand in the presidential election. He is seen as the leading challenger to Kabila. The wealthy businessman is a former Kabila ally who joined the opposition in September 2015 after stepping down as governor of mineral-rich Katanga province.
- 11 May 2016 – The Constitutional Court states that Kabia can remain in office when his mandate expires, even without being re-elected.
- May 2016 – Katumbi leave for South Africa, ostensibly for medical treatment, after appearing in court twice over the alleged use of foreign mercenaries.
- 10 June 2016 – During a Brussels meeting, which was organized by Tshisekedi, the mainstream opposition decides to set up a new coalition.
- June 2016 – Katumbi is sentenced to three years in prison over a separate real estate dispute in a move that effectively makes him ineligible to stand in the election.
- July 2016 – Tshisekedi returns to Kinshasa after two years in Belgium. Speaking before tens of thousands of supporters, he demands that the election be held by the year’s end and that Kabila departs.
- September 2016 – The opposition coalition calls for demonstrators to signal notice to Kabila, three months before his term is due to expire.
- 19 – 20 September 2016 – Violence erupts in Kinshasa between security forces and youths, leaving several dozen people dead. The protests were called by Tshisekedi’s opposition coalition to coincide with the last three months of Kabila’s term in office.
- 17 October 2016 – The parliamentary majority and an opposition fringe minority sign an accord, which effectively pushes the presidential election back to April 2018 and keeps Kabila in place until his predecessor takes over. The mainstream opposition however continues to demand that Kabila step down at the end of his mandate, in December 2016.
- 8 December 2016 – The DRC’s episcopal conference CENCO launches talks which are aimed at a deal on setting up a transition authority until a presidential election can be held. It sets a 16 December deadline, which comes and goes.
- 12 December 2016 – The United States and the European Union (EU) impose sanctions on top Congolese officials over bloodshed in the country.
- 17 December 2016 – Catholic Church negotiators announce that talks would resume only a day after Kabila’s term ends.
- 20 December 2016 – According to the UN, deadly clashes erupt in Kinshasa and other cities on the last day of Kabila’s mandate, leaving at least forty people dead.
- Late December 2016 – The CENCO-mediated talks resume
- 31 December 2016 – The two sides agree that Kabila will remain in power until elections are held at the “end of 2017.” During this 12-month period, a so-called National Transition Council, will be set up, headed by opposition leader Tshisekedi, and a prime minister will be named from opposition ranks.
This month, diplomats and MPs struck a deal to end an internal EU dispute, which will result in the EU soon letting Ukrainians and Georgians visit the bloc without needed a visa. The dispute had been holding up the promised measures.
Agreement on a mechanism to suspend such visa waivers in emergencies has effectively ended mounting embarrassment for those EU leaders who felt that the bloc was reneging on pledges to former Soviet states that it has promised to help as they try to move out from Moscow’s shadow. The move came after the European Council President warned that the EU was risking its credibility by failing to reward Georgia and Ukraine for painful reforms. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has since hailed the move as “encouraging news from Brussels.”
The prospect of easier travel to Western European countries has been used by governments in Kiev and Tbilisi in order to win popular backing for painful, EU-sponsored reforms. However EU leaders got cold feet about opening doors to 45 million Ukrainians after the public backlash that followed last year’s refugee crisis in Europe. Furthermore, facing strong challenges from anti-immigration parties in elections next year, leading powers France and Germany demanded strong controls before any visa agreement was signed. Late-night talks have since resulted in the European Parliament conceding that governments can reimpose visa requirements quickly, with MPs’ approval.
Georgia, which has only 5 million citizens, has long been seen as being ready for visa liberalization. However many believe that its failure to achieve such as agreement has been due to the EU’s hesitation over Ukraine, which is bigger, closer and currently stuck in conflict with Russia. A similar plan to ease travel for Turkey’s 75 million citizens, which is part of a deal whereby Ankara has helped the EU shut out Syrians and other people seeking asylum, has added to political sensitivities in Brussels about the issue. The process with Turkey has been frozen because of Ankara’s failure to fulfil all the EU conditions, coupled with anger across Europe at Turkey’s crackdown on opponents following a coup attempt in July.
The bloc has disclosed that any new visa waivers can only come into force after the EU has increased an emergency brake to suspend any free-travel deals in emergencies. However talks on exactly how that “snap-back” mechanism would work have dragged on for months. It will now allow the executive European Commission or a majority of EU states to suspend swiftly a country’s visa exemption for nine months if there is a sharp rise in its citizens overstaying their permitted time in the EU making multiple asylum requests or other problem for th European. The EU would be able to extend the suspension period for a further eighteen months in some cases, however through amore complex procedure that would also give a say to the European Parliament.